MEMPHIS, Tenn.– The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Tennessee, Just City, and The Wharton Law Firm sent a letter to Shelby County judicial and government officials Wednesday demanding that the county end its cash bail practices.
The letter states that the county’s current bail practices violate the constitutional and statutory rights of people arrested in Shelby County, and outlines proposed reforms to avoid litigation.
The ACLU said if an agreement is not reached, a lawsuit will be filed.
Under the current pretrial system, a person can be held for weeks or longer without a bail hearing with counsel and ability to pay is not considered which leaves those who can’t afford bail to be detained indefinitely.
“Shelby County keeps hundreds of people locked in jail every day without making any attempt to evaluate if they can afford the bail they were assigned, creating a wealth-based detention system that disproportionately harms limited income, Black and disabled people,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “A justice system that only treats people fairly if they have money isn’t about ‘justice’ at all.”
Tennessee law requires that judges treat money bail as a last resort- only to be imposed if other less restrictive conditions are deemed insufficient to ensure that someone appears for their trial.
In the letter, the civil rights organizations call on the county to make sure people who are arrested receive a bail hearing no later than 24 hours after their arrest with counsel. It also demands that the person’s financial circumstances are considered prior to any hearing and that secured bail money is only issued as a last resort.
A person who is detained for even a few days will often face serious consequences such as losing their job, housing, education, health care, and even child custody.
“Because of this community’s dependence on money bail, the Shelby County Jail is full of people who cannot pay for their freedom. There are proven alternatives to this counterproductive system – tools and policies that have worked in other cities just like Memphis to reduce crime, save money and help people,” stated Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City. “These methods work, but they require leadership. Today, we are inviting Shelby County leaders to join us for a long-overdue conversation about safe and effective alternatives to the money bail system. We hope they’ll join us.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Shelby County spent nearly $139 million, 31% of the total county budget, on its two jail facilities in 2019.
Shelby County Mayor’s Office Press Secretary Frankie Dakin issued a statement Thursday, saying in part “Our current money bail system is a function of state law and our judicial system. We support reform that reduces the criminal justice system’s reliance on cash bail. A person should be held in detention because they pose a risk to public safety, not because they are poor.”
You can read the full letter here.